IMMM RICE AND BEYOND SERVES TRADITIONAL THAI dishes from a buffet line, one to three dishes plus rice for a set price, and co-owner Dew Suriyawan races to tell me that that doesn’t mean what he knows Americans will think it means. “I don’t want people to think of Panda Express,” he says.
“We’re not trying to be cheap like Panda Express,” his partner, Noon Tosakulwong, says. “We’re just trying to serve the food like they serve it in Thailand.”
To be honest, I pretty much stopped thinking about Panda Express as soon as I opened the door and was hit with a pungent blast of fish sauce in the air. That was an unmistakable sign that we were dealing with Thai food making few concessions to being halfway around the world in America.
Dew, who manages the restaurant, and Noon, who has a day job but comes by in the evenings, wanted to offer a style or subgenre of Thai food called khao rad gaeng. Which literally means “curry over rice,” but stands for any kind of fast food sold with rice from street stalls, where it might be bubbling in pots, sitting in foil pans—or warming on a steam table. For Americans the steam table may imply lower-quality food and service, but for the owners of Immm, it’s a way to get closer to the way food tastes in Thailand—because it’s sat for hours, deepening its flavors. “Some dishes you have to leave overnight. You have to marinate [the meat in] it, you have to stir—not just make the sauce and serve it to the customer,” Dew says. Dishes which are meant to be stir-fried are cooked to order, but others such as curries are allowed to sit: “It’s better to make the curries in a big quantity and just leave it a little while. And also, because it’s time consuming [to make a curry from scratch], it’s not worth it to make one small thing at a time.”
The result is that even dishes which are familiar from other Thai restaurants—jungle curry, tom yum khai soup—taste different than you might be used to. Partly because they’re prepared differently, but also because they opened the restaurant in the Argyle area, in the former Thai Avenue on Broadway, where they’d have easy access to authentic Thai ingredients. “We have pad thai and pad see eiew,” Noon says, naming two common Thai take-out favorites, “but we try to make it authentic. We use Chinese broccoli in pad see eiew. It’s harder to find, so some restaurants use regular broccoli, but we try to make it as close to Thailand as we can.”
“And pad thai, we put chives in there—” Dew says.
“We put pickle radishes, and the small crispy shrimp,” Dew says. “A lot of restaurants in America don’t use that, one, it’s expensive and two, Americans tend to leave that out, but we try to put everything in there.”
These differences make ordering and dining at Immm (the name means “I’m full”) a unique and educational experience even for those who’ve been eating Thai for decades. To aid in that understanding, I photographed everything on the buffet line one day recently, and asked Noon and Dew to tell me a little bit about each dish. At first my concern was that it would be a whole slideshow of brown curries, and well, it kind of is, but you soon see that khao rad gaeng covers a lot of different kinds of flavors, and that you’re meant to put together a balanced plate that might include a spicy curry, a fresh stir-fry, and something with some sweetness to it. The buffet will of course change from day to day, but Noon and Dew expect that most of the dishes shown will be available on any given day.
Gallery: 18 Things to Eat at Immm Rice and Beyond
NEITHER DEW NOR NOON PLANNED TO BE IN THE restaurant business, but as with so many of Chicago’s Thais, it runs in the family. Dew was studying information technology at DePaul when he and his sisters took over Spoon, one of the oldest Thai restaurants in the city and one long appreciated by foodies for being one of the first to make its “secret menu” of more authentic Thai dishes readily accessible to non-Thai diners. I first heard of interesting new things happening there when Dave Miller of Baker/Miller told me that the new owners were doing more authentic food for the Thai community on Friday night, but I never managed to follow up on the story. Turns out Dew had done that, but the Friday nights hadn’t really been successful—”It was a long day,” he said, preparing all the Thai food, staying open until early morning hours so Thais working in restaurants could come by after their shifts—and then staying even later himself to clean up for the next day.
But the focus on authenticity might have helped lead to teaming up with his friend Noon to open Immm. “We’ve known each other for a long time,” she explains. “My brother owns another restaurant, Jaiyen, and I consider myself a little bit of a foodie—”
“She’s a foodie!” Dew interjects.
Noon continues, “I have my day job and at night I would go out and try different restaurants, from every cuisine—I like Korean, American, even Filipino. And I would get ideas of what I would do in my own restaurant. So one day he was just, why don’t we open a restaurant?”
One strength is that they represent all of the major areas of Thai cuisine—she’s from Bangkok, but he’s from Chiang Mai in the north and the cook they hired is from Isan, in the northeast. Maybe that’s why they see a mission of education and authenticity in their restaurant, representing Thai food from all its regions as well as its influences—as Dew says to me at one point, “Thai food is basically Indian food mixed with Chinese food,” a description that many would probably object to, but isn’t a bad start for a newcomer understanding it.
“It’s funny that I try to find my job in the IT field, and I end up with these restaurants,” Dew says. “Because I like it. I like food. I feel happy when I make food, actually.”
Michael Gebert is the orange chicken at Fooditor.
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